Nobody said it would be easy
Steve McClaren has endured something of a baptism of fire since taking over control of the England national team.
In all he has been in charge for six games which have generated three wins, two draws and one defeat. On paper it has not been the most exciting beginning, but nor has it been an unmitigated disaster, not that you would have been able to glean that if you happen to have glanced at the back pages of the English tabloids.
McClaren has been lampooned, lambasted and generally vilified for, among other things, his choice of captain, team, coaching staff, formation, tactics, substitutes, the somewhat lacklustre nature of his team's performances, and most of all for the results in the last two games.
Of McClaren's six games in the England hot seat, still warm from Sven Goran Eriksson's exorbitantly-well remunerated derrière, England's worst performances came in qualification fixtures for the 2008 European Championships; a 2-0 defeat away to Croatia away and 1-1 draw at home to Macedonia.
In an exclusive interview with ESPNsoccernet Press Pass McClaren admits that those two fixtures have been the most disappointing of his short tenure.
'Croatia was always going to be a difficult game, especially at home in Zagreb where they've gone 14 years unbeaten,' accepts the England manager.
'It was always going to be hard, but we had injuries and suspensions and we had to change our team a bit. We didn't go there in good shape and we got beat. It happens in football.'
'The disappointment for me was the Macedonia game. We should win our home games, and we should beat the likes of Macedonia, no disrespect to them, and that was disappointing. We had chances and if we had just taken one, we'dve won 1-0 and gotten out of there with three points... but we didn't, and that is really what put us in the position that we're in'.
The position in which England find themselves in is third behind Croatia and Russia in their qualifying group, a group from which only the top two teams will reach the tournament in Austria and Switzerland in two summers' time.
Because the average fan expects England to qualify comfortably from any group, particularly this one which also boasts Israel, Estonia and Andorra, disappointing results and uneven performances have caused considerable consternation on the terraces, which has been mirrored, and exacerbated, by a blood-thirsty media far from enamoured with the Football Association's choice of England manager.
However, the experience McClaren gained working alongside Eriksson for five years in the England set-up has enabled him to take such criticism in his stride and as such he remains relatively sanguine.
'We always take the middle ground and have always said if we win a game we're not as good as the media make out, and also if we lose a game, we're not as bad as the media make out.'
'People from other countries have said to me 'Why every time you play [do] you have a God-given right and expectation to win 3 or 4 nil? You know, you should never expect to do that'. Football's very, very difficult and winning football matches is difficult, whether it's 3 or 4 nil or whether it's 1-0. And so the expectations can be exaggerated, and exaggerated through the media.
'The whole experience of being with Sven and seeing what the media are like, seeing what the fans are like, the games, the tournaments, the organisation; that for me was a great education, there's nothing I've had to learn and nothing has surprised me at all in the job.'
|“||Getting the players to play as they do for their clubs - that's the ultimate ambition. If we get that, we'll be a very good team.' ”|
Which is a surprise in itself, because McClaren could easily be forgiven for being more than a little taken aback by the level of criticism he has faced since May, when he was named as Eriksson's successor.
It is fair to say certain sections of the media were under-whelmed by McClaren's appointment and were quick to highlight his lack of success as a manager with Middlesbrough and that Luis Felipe Scolari was their, and perhaps the FA's, preferred candidate.
Then came the fallout from McClaren's entirely sensible, albeit brave, decision to drop David Beckham, and the appointment of former England manager Terry Venables as his assistant.
For the record McClaren is sticking to his guns on both matters, he plays down speculation regarding a rift between himself and Venables, insisting they getting on 'terrifically well' and 'speak most days'. As for Beckham ('a terrific player and a terrific captain') McClaren has reiterated that 'the door is never closed', but that 'times move on.'
Two convincing wins, the 4-0 friendly win against Greece, McClaren's first in charge, and a 5-0 win over Andorra in England's opening Euro 2008 qualifier, deflected attention away from McClaren and the early controversy, but then came three games which brought his honeymoon period to an abrupt end.
It began with a disappointing 1-0 win away to Macedonia in early September, then a 0-0 draw at home against the same team, a side placed 50 places below England in the FIFA rankings, and finally the 2-0 defeat to Croatia.
In the aftermath McClaren was pilloried as much for the results as the manner of them, as well his choice of formation and for the lack of cohesion within his team, a problem he is well aware of and one his is keen to rectify.
'The biggest test for any international manager is to gel [players] together as a unit, as a team. And it's very, very difficult but that ultimately is what we're trying to achieve. Getting the players to play as they do for their clubs - that's the ultimate ambition. If we get that, we'll be a very good team.'
McClaren didn't quite achieve that objective in the 1-1 friendly draw against Holland in November, but the performance did represent an improvement, now England's critics must wait until February when Spain visit Old Trafford for a friendly. A harsh critic of himself McClaren admits that the waiting between games at international level has been frustrating, especially following poor performances.
'With a club when I used to lose, Saturday night and Sunday were a nightmare, but on Monday I could get in, sort it out, close that game down and move on. [At] international level you've maybe got six, seven weeks before the next game and now we've got 2 or 3 months before the next game.'
After February's meeting with the Spanish, McClaren won't have too long to wait before a very tricky-looking away tie against Israel in early March. And while England fans would expect a straightforward win, McClaren is more cautious.
'Before Croatia beat them, I think Israel were unbeaten in 7 years playing in Tel-Aviv. Five years ago, smaller teams you know they were easier games. Now, nothing is easy, Israel, Macedonia, teams like that, especially on their home patch are very, very difficult games. So, we're looking forward to the game, we know it's a crunch game, we know it's going be a big one and we go there full of confidence.'
Learning that McClaren considers the likes of Israel and Macedonia to be difficult games might not be what England fans want to hear, but perhaps there has been altogether too much hype surrounding England, too much hyperbole and too much ego. Perhaps McClaren is just being realistic and offering respect to worthy opponents?
'What everybody expects and everybody wants and everybody demands is we go beyond that quarter-final stage. My job is to keep everybody's feet firmly on the ground, take each step at a time, qualification is the first priority.'
It might not be exciting and it might not be the sort of inspirational tub-thumping the tabloid fans demand of an English manager, but if McClaren's approach provides the right results with the right performances the critics might finally be drowned out.